Coke float drinking pocket rocket, planetary scientist, presenter, space comedienne

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Giant snowballs from space for Christmas

Is there a new Christmas star on the horizon?

I love the run up to Christmas for various reasons (mulled wine and panettone notwithstanding!) but one of the main reasons is that the skies are darker for longer, bringing out the best of British astronomy. However, in the run up to Christmas 2013 we have a special treat in store for us.

As this article is written there is a giant snowball hurtling towards us, well, the Sun. Comet C/2012 S1, more famously known as Comet ISON (International Scientific Optical Network), will reach perihelion on the 28th of November and should be observable in early December as ‘the comet of the century’!

ISON was discovered in September 2012 by two Russian scientists Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok using an automated program that looks for asteroids. Many follow-up observations were made soon after and excitement about the comet grew steadily.

Comet ISON is a few km in diametre so it is not very large. The dust and water production are increasing slowly which is thought to be because ISON is a slow rotator (ref @nickastronomer).

 At perihelion is will come as close as 1.6 million km from the surface of the Sun. At closest approach to the Earth it will reach 64 million km on the 26th of December so we certainly don’t need to worry about calling Bruce Willis or Elijah Wood on Boxing Day!

If ISON survives being so close to the Sun, when it passess the Earth in early December we should be able to see it during the daytime with the naked eye. If it does survive it could be visible until early January 2014.

Comets reside in the outer Solar System in the Oort cloud and generally have very eliptical orbits. This means that they take tens of years to revisit the Earth and during each orbit there are chances that the comet could become destroyed by being too close to the Sun.

Comets are massive dirty snowballs containing water, organic materials, ammonia and carbon. They are thought to have brought about the distruction of the dinosaurs and could have been the vehicle that brough water, or even life, to a once barren Earth.

These dirty snowballs have a nucleus that is dark due to the carbon compounds, but as the comet hurtles towards the Sun the ices begin to melt and some of the material becomes ionised. This leads to the two beautiful tails that make the comets visitble and individual. The word comet means ‘hairy star’ and comets have been observed since the early 1000s. It is even possible that the Christmas star was a comet!

ISON has been called the comet of the century as, if it survives perihelion, the comet could outshine the full moon. At the moment there is about a 50% chance that the comet will survive and give us some fantastic Christmas fairy lights so fingers, toes and anything else crossed that we all get to witness this spectacular astronomical phenomenon!

One of my favourite science ‘party tricks’ is to make a comet in a bucket. I’ve made comets in classrooms, pubs and theatres and every time I’m amazed at the Earth-bound analogy – just get in touch if you want me to come and visit!

Me on the Naked Scientists telling you how to make a comet:

http://www.thenakedscientists.com/HTML/content/interviews/interview/2201/

A video of me making a comet:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rPFfFhW62uE

 

What I See

Well it has been a rather long time since I posted something new on the blog. It’s not because I’ve not wanted to – just I’ve been busy (life has a habit of getting in the way) and it is so much quicker/easier doing those 140 character blogs daily on Twitter than writing a post on here!

As I sit here and type I can tell you I am now a Dr, a teacher, a wife, a homeowner and a kitten ownerall in the last year! So you can see why perhaps I haven’t managed to blog since the 6th of July 2012!

The kitten is playing havoc with my typing so I’ll have to keep it a little short, but this post is a very fitting one for me to come out of hibernation for.

As you can see from the list I’ve been doing a lot with my ‘normal’ life but I’ve also remained as active as possible with my ‘other’ life which is science communication. Not including communicating to 150 children about science every day of course! I’ve been on the radio, represented Science Grrl at various events, started a STEMM company with my sister (@STEMMsisters) in which we are hoping to connect, inspire and empower people to do STEMM subjects. I’ve also done a fair amount of public talks and lectures including at the National Astronomy Meeting (http://www.ras.org.uk/nam2013) and for my beloved space charity Space Link Learning Foundation during which I got to meet and chat to Dr Helen Sharman – amazing!

See my gigs page to see what else I am up to in the near future – I promise to keep it up to date from now!

Anyway, the point of today’s blog is this:

I’ve been involved in the “What I See” project which is hoping to amplify women’s voices through the simple, or complex, question “what do you see when you look in the mirror?”. This question has become particularly poignant for me in the past year because I’ve become so much in 12 months (remember? a Dr, a teacher, a wife, a homeowner and a kitten owner)!

To watch my video in which I ramble on about what I see when I look in the mirror click on the link here: link to my What I See video. During the video I get very confused, a bit silly, a bit deep and meaningful and somewhat off topic! But it does answer, to a point, my opinion of what I see when I look in the mirror (depending on what day/time of day it is!). I hope my video can empower other women who can relate to what I say!

The most important factor in the campaign is diversity which is women from all different walks of life have been chosen to play a part. I would like to pass the baton on to Danielle Wightman-Stone at www.fashionistabarbieuk.com who will be the next contributor.

The best news is that YOU can get involved as well! Have a look at the project website and see if you can answer the question!

Right I better be off – school starts tomorrow so I have to get ready for that, and feed the kitten, and I’m on the John Gillmore show on BBC radio Lancashire in a few hours. No rest for the wicked :)

I do hope to blog again soon as I always enjoy myself when I do so, but I can’t make any promises!

Until then……

Science teaching and science communication, should there be a difference?

Why I think communicating physics and teaching physics should go hand in hand:

An article published in “American Scientist” which claims “School is not where most Americans learn most of their science”.

(you can find the paper here) http://caise.insci.org/uploads/docs/FalkandDierking95perc.pdf

It chats about programs like Mythbusters and says that much of science is learnt through exploratoriums, explosions and e-activities rather than in lessons. (Perhaps everyone in the USA watches TV, but not everyone goes to school?).

Surely school should be the first port of call for learning about science?

So I haven’t been blogging lots recently because I’ve been busy typing up, handing in and revising for my thesis viva. It all comes to a culmination in ten days time but what is after that for me?

Well the great news is that I’m going to go to a high school and be a TEACHER! :) I’m really excited!

I’ll be doing a GTP so I teach and train at the same time which is perfect for someone like me who has been a student far too long. And I get to move ‘oop Norf’ to be closer to my wonderful fiance.

Hopefully when I teach I’ll get to enthuse and inspire my kids about science and in doing so hopefully they might learn something too.

Science is SO important. I was astounded and rather proud to hear Will.I.Am chatting about STEM on The Graham Norton show the other week, telling everyone how important STEM subjects are. STEM subjects are the future, and the next generation are the future as well. I cannot wait to be partly responsible for molding the future!

 

Hmmmm I wish I didn’t agree….

A close friend recently lamented to me “You never really finish a PhD, you just give up on it.”

The amazingness of the internet…or is it?

The internet has made the world a smaller place.

Its now a world in which we can see photos of our friends babies in Oz, 2 hours after they are born.

A world in which we can watch videos of our relatives in the USA and see our cousins grow up as if they lived down the street.

A world in which brand new data from Saturn can be analysed by three different scientists in three different countries.

A world in which I can conduct Skype interviews with a Serbian man in the USA about using plasma fusion to drive interstellar missions (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVAx15jOXaU).

A world in which your Twitter followers are the first people to tell you about an earthquake in Japan, a war in Egypt, an evil man in Uganda who is stealing children.

It really is incredible.

Whilst the internet doesn’t allow me to write this blog, it allows a lot of you to read it. Without the internet I wouldn’t know that someone, somewhere, was reading what I write.

Until today!

I got my first ever piece of snail-mail associated with this blog today! It felt like fan mail!

A lovely man in Virginia wrote to me in pen, on paper, and stuck stamps on it and posted it. He told me his memories of the moon landings and his enjoyment at seeing Jupiter and Venus so close these past weeks. He told me he was pleased to see a young person passionate about science.

He told me to stay focused, dream big and never look back.

Very very wise words. Hence sharing them with you.

Stay focused, dream big and never look back.

Frank, if you are reading this, I can assure you that a reply is winging its way to you by snail mail!

It just shows that the new inventions are amazing and can change the world, but its the little things, the old fashioned things, that can touch your heart.

Why doing a PhD is, quite literally, bad for you.

So I’ve been doing a PhD for a bit over 4 years now (sshhh don’t tell anyone I’ve gone over) and its becoming more and more obvious that rather than being beneficial for your brain and life, PhDs are simply bad for your health.

In the past four years I’ve caught a cold more times than in my previous 25 years of life. Mum and Dad reckon that’s because I’ve been making regular trips oop Norf to bug-ridden Preston to visit my now-fiancé (yay I’m engaged!) but I know that the real reason is because my immune system is way down low to allow for my brain to work correctly, meaning that every time I feel just a whisper of a cold I end up in bed for two days solid.  Nothing to do with procrastination (shirking) from the thesis I swear.

Another thing that is failing, like that little old farmer in the SpecSavers advert who shears the wrong sheep aka his dog, is my eyesight. One night a few months ago I’d worked til about 4am then woke up the next day at about 9ish to carry on. My eyes felt a bit puffy so I raced to my magnifying mirror only to see that the cornea of my left eye was seemingly coming undone and flapping over my pupil. I frantically called my sister, a GP, and told her with shock and awe, “My left cornea is falling out!”. Sadly she told me that that simply wasn’t possible, but that perhaps I should go to the opticians just in case. I raced down the road to my local optician, who however wasn’t my optician, and asked for an emergency appointment. This is when looking super young does me a favour, as the receptionist clearly thought she had a panicking teenager in her midst and let me in to see the optician right away. He did a thorough exam and told me that I had “sceleritis”, an inflammation of the cornea due to tiredness, dry eyes and stress. Guess what those were due to? Thesis writing of course! Since moving back to my parents’ house (I am no longer a funded PhD student hence I can’t afford to pay rent) my mum keeps an “eye” (geddit?!) on my working hours and hence how long I sit and stare at the computer screen. Every few hours she insists that I squirt “Tears Naturale” into each eye and the sceleritis hasn’t reappeared.

Since moving back to my parents’ house, however, I also have no real desk to sit and work at so I tend to sit on a really hard dining chair or a slightly aging sofa in the tele room. I try and vary my location to keep things fresh and sometimes the dining chair is preferable (i.e. when one of the cats sits on my lap) and sometimes the sofa is preferable (i.e. when Jeremy Kyle or Loose Women is on the tele). The only problem with either of those locations is that, due to intense thesis writing, I think I’ve actually broken my bum. My back and coccyx hurt like crazy regardless of where I’m sitting. Doesn’t matter if it’s a car seat (a seat in a car, not a kiddie car seat, even I’m tall enough not to require one of those), a cinema chair, on a train or even sometimes on the loo, by the time I go to stand up I have to pull myself up on whatever is closest, or roll sideways until I can lever myself up on my knees. Writing my thesis has broken my bum!

Not to mention the RSI associated with typing all the time. It’s in my wrists, in my thumb pad, in my mouse fingers and in my ankles because I always sit with my legs crossed in the same way! In fact, the RSI has even spread to my poor laptop who can no longer accurately left-click when asked to, no matter how polite I am, due to over use.

Being so busy all the time, and having to move back home (both PhD related I hasten to add) has meant that some things in my hectic social schedule have had to give. I couldn’t stop seeing family and friends so it meant I had to give up the other hobby I had; exercise! I’m not playing hockey right now, I’m lucky if I go running once a week, and although I’m still tapping it’s barely exercise when it’s dancing along to Michael Buble! I desperately miss my biweekly Body Pumping days but can’t find a new class to fit in with my single minded working day and hence, since before Christmas (it’s past Valentine’s day now) my fitness has plummeted. Walking up the stairs to my bedroom renders me into an asthmatic attack and carrying a tin of beans makes the muscles in my arms ache with lactic acid. I’m trying to cling on to my fitness by starting up the exercise regime again and today I fast walked a whole 1.7 miles in my MBTs with mum.

As if the fitness debacle wasn’t enough the thesis has had the biggest effect on my belly. The curse of the dreaded thesis belly. At first I was doing really well with a controlled diet of fruit and veg and brain enhancing omega fats but now my relationship with food has just gone mad. I’ve never eaten so much junk in a bid to keep awake/have a break/procrastinate. My weight has yo-yoed and I can’t blame Christmas. My legs are jelly which is really bad because before they were huuuge muscles, my bingo wings might actually give me liftoff soon and my bum is spreading from sitting on it to type all day, not to mention the cellulite. Someone actually asked me if I was pregnant the other week (I swore it was just my poor posture, another thesis-related issue). I dare not step on to the scales right now, and have given up almost everything naughty for Lent even though I’m Hindu in a last ditch desperate attempt to regain my lovely size ten curvy toned figure.

If only I could maintain a wedding diet. I’m googling diet pills as I type ;)

I could go on a lot longer, but the weight in my chipolata fingers is slowing me down and the RSI in my thumb pad is starting to flare.

Inspire the uninspired…

Those famous words are such a great motto for life. Thank you Van Wilder.

So I turned down a job the other day.

It was the most scary choice I’d made in a long time but I feel like I made the right choice. Lets hope I don’t live to regret it.

(And I did it for the children.)

I posted a photo to Facebook recently from a photoshoot me and my best mate had. In the pic I was really grinning, proper cheesy.

Some of the kids I’ve taught at Space School started having a convo on that pic, about how I smile like that when I talk about science, how my face “lights up” and how great I am at teaching them.

Some of their comments were: ” trust me when ever you talk about your job or space or anything when your teaching us or whatever you always light up like this – you are an amazing person on the inside and out – time you realized that and went and changed the world” and ” its coz the way you explain things you should do like tv work like popularizing science even more, or something – do what you want to do then you will make us happy – for one i think you could be an ace science journo, because you’ve got that midas touch- you should just go for it i believe in you 100%” and “you could do more that Brian Cox, you could bring out science like it should be, he dumbs it down Sheila has a a way of bringing complex stuff to an understandable level – like when i was at junior space school i was like the youngest there and hadn’t done much of the maths that the others had but she helped me out no end” and finally “Plus she makes it fun too… because she’s fun, she knows what we like.

I was balling by the end of reading that! I was so touched by their lovely words, bless them.

Anyway, so yeah, I turned down a job.

I’m getting to the end of my PhD and trying to figure out what I want to do for the rest of my life. So I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut, and I still do and am pretty sure I’ll get there when I’m 92 aboard a Virgin Galactic plane. So what do I do career wise in the meantime?

I wasn’t sure until recently. I applied for a mix of things and after some interviews got one job.

A post-doc position to continue doing science.

Now I was rather lucky to get this job as there aren’t many out there at the mo, esp in space stuff. But when I was told I got it I just didn’t feel right. I didn’t feel proud or happy, and my gut instincts were going haywire.

Now the first code of being a vampire slayer is to always trust your instinct. But up until now I’ve not been very good at that. I’ve made some wrong choices in my life and those have made me scared of regret, of doing the wrong thing, of hindsight.

The thing is, as long as you make the right choice at the time, you should never ever regret your choices. Of course you have to make the right choice for the right reasons too but as a rule of thumb, right choice at the time is good enough.

I was so close to taking this post-doc because I felt like it was what I should do, it was what I’d trained for, I didnt want to let anyone down, make anyone hate me, I knew others who had wanted that job but didnt even get an interview, I was scared not to take it.

But then I remembered. Inspire the uninspired. And I realised that while I love love love space science, it isn’t the nitty gritty science bit of it that excites me. Its the bigger picture, the amazing picture, and the teaching that picture to future astronauts and scientists.

So I didnt take the job. When I wrote the email it sat on my desktop for a few hours til I had the courage to press send. And when I finally did it I felt relief and excitement. So I must have made the right choice!

People have told me I’ve been brave and mature. For the first time in my life I listened to my instinct and did what I thought was right, regardless of others. And now I’ve got no job lined up and no pay packet on the way, but I’m happy. So I guess being offered the job has taught me a really amazing lesson.

I just hope that soon I can get a job that I love in something that helps me inspire using the context of space. Any takers? :)

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